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10 years after E2 stampede, Chicago clubs take an extra level of caution

CHICAGO IL - FEBRUARY 17:  A Chicago police car commvan stfront Epitome nightclub February 17 2003 Chicago Illinois. At

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 17: A Chicago police car and command van stand in front of the Epitome nightclub February 17, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. At least 21people died early February 17, 2003 after a security guard allegedly discharged mace or pepper spray to break up a fight, causing a panic and a stampede for the exits. At least 30 people are reportedly hospitalised. (Photo by Allen Kaleta/Getty Images)

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:19AM

Last month, a musician set off a firework inside a crowded club in Santa Maria, Brazil. The resulting fire spread “in seconds,” and 238 people — mostly teenagers — were killed.

Just last weekend, Chicago police and firefighters responded to a South Side nightclub, the 22Thirty9, and shut down a party attended by about 140 people. The club was rated to hold 80.

Both incidents were uncomfortable reminders of two tragic anniversaries this week in clubland.

On Feb. 17, 2003, security guards at Chicago’s E2 nightclub used pepper spray to break up a fight. The overcapacity crowd of about 1,500 people panicked, rushing toward a single exit, and the resulting stampede injured dozens and left 21 trampled to death in a narrow stairwell.

Just three days later, Feb. 20, at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island, a fire caused by pyrotechnics during a concert by the rock band Great White engulfed the venue, killing 100 people.

“I was at the Grammys in New York that week,” remembers Joe Shanahan, owner of Chicago’s Metro. “I flipped out. I turned to my wife and said, ‘We’re going home.’ We were going to spend the weekend in New York, but I said, ‘I want to be there when people call, when the staff shows up to work.’ There were going to be repercussions on a city, state and federal level, and I want to be on premises.”

On the plane home, Shanahan had a brilliant and obvious idea.

“The woman is standing there giving the emergency directions. I thought, why don’t we do this in the club?” he says.

Since then, a recorded message has played before the start of each Metro concert, advising patrons to take a quick moment to scan the room and “make yourself aware of the illuminated exit signs.” The brief message details the locations of six different fire exits throughout the club, concluding, “In case of an emergency, please utilize these exits. Have fun, be safe and enjoy the show.”

The E2 tragedy will forever haunt the families of victims, many of whom settled lawsuits against the club’s owners, Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins, by 2006. In 2009, a jury found Kyles and Hollins guilty of ignoring a city order to close the second-floor club, but the verdicts were reversed on appeal. Last month the city asked the state Supreme Court to review that appeal. The building at 23rd and South Michigan that housed E2 has been vacant since the tragedy.

But the legacy of E2 also hangs over Chicago’s nightlife.

‘Pretty brutal,’ for a time

Certainly in the weeks and months immediately following the deadly stampede, the city stepped up its inspections of nightclubs and music venues.

“There was a lot of shutting down shows, bringing everyone outside and then counting them as they went back in,” says Paul Natkin, executive director of the Chicago Music Commission, a group formed in 2005 to represent the interests of musicians in commercial and public policy discussions. “It was pretty brutal, really. But I haven’t heard of that in years.”

In June 2007, at the request of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city proposed an ordinance to further regulate Chicago event managers. The so-called promoters ordinance was the most overt public policy response to the E2 tragedy — and it was a debacle.

Under the law, event promoters would have had to register with and be fingerprinted by the city before paying a two-year license fee (ranging from $500 to $2,000) and obtaining $300,000 in liability insurance, regardless of whether the venue in which the event was being held was already insured.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction to what happened,” says Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of Chicago’s Jam Productions. “It really wasn’t necessary. It contained some things the city thought made sense, but when you talk to people who present these events, [the law] didn’t make much sense at all. One of the requirements was that you had to be 21 to get a promoter’s license. I started when I was 20. That meant I couldn’t have started Jam Productions. It would have really hurt business in Chicago.”

Says Natkin, “The people writing the law simply had no idea how the people they were trying to govern actually worked. Once we explained it to them, they were looking at us like, ‘Oh yeah, we never knew that!’ And then the whole thing just went away.”

The City Council License Committee approved the ordinance in May 2008, but the law was eventually tabled before reaching a vote in the full council, largely because of the outcry from the music community and the CMC.

Licensing lightens up

What has changed at the policy level is a simplification of the city’s formerly convoluted licensing system. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the number of required business licenses from 117 to 49.

“It’s still a difficult system, but now you don’t have to hire a lawyer just to figure out which kind of licenses you need,” Natkin says. “Anything that makes economic development easier is good for everyone, and music is a big part of this city’s economic picture. Every time a club opens, the businesses around it do better. But there are plenty of laws already on the books to regulate public events. We don’t need more laws.”

Existing laws and policies were enforced in the wave of inspections following E2, and the Fire Prevention Bureau’s Weekend Detail Team since has expanded its regular visits to clubs and bars, checking for overcrowding and fire code violations, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

“We’ve beefed up our weekend inspection detail, going after clubs aggressively while they’re in operation,” Langford says. “As a result, in the 10 years since [the E2 tragedy], we have not had a serious injury in a nightclub” as a result of a code violation.

Even large outdoor events are subject to dangerous conditions and evacuation issues, as Lollapalooza discovered last summer. In the hours before a fierce summer storm arrived in the city, the music festival’s organizers emptied Grant Park of 60,000 fans and 3,000 staff, artists and vendors, all within 38 minutes.

“It was amazing,” Shanahan says. “It was executed and planned just the way things should be, with cooperation between fire, police, the Park District, the bands and the promoters.”

Lollapalooza revealed details of its emergency plan that morning, Aug. 4, 2012. Officials from C3 Presents, the promoter behind Lollapalooza, would not comment for this story.

Leaving any nightclub or concert venue happy, healthy and alive, though, usually depends most on simple awareness of your own surroundings.

“These concert experiences are going to change your life, but you have to take responsibility to look around, know what you’re getting into, know how to get out,” Shanahan says. “That’s not being nerdy. That’s just being aware.”

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